Lionel Messi’s Argentina career began in 2005 with an absurd red card in a friendly against Hungary after he was adjudged to have thrown an elbow at a defender. Fourteen years later, equally bizarre circumstances saw him sent off for the second time in his career.
With eight minutes to go until half-time in the Copa America’s game for third place that Argentina ultimately won 2-1, there is no doubt that he was guilty of a push on Chile’s Gary Medel, who responded by repeatedly charging Messi with his chest. What followed, though, was hardly warranted.
The incident came after a series of fouls by both teams and led to referee Mauro Diaz de Vivar trying too hard to compensate for losing control. The Paraguayan official was never likely to have an easy game, and with scuffles breaking out across the pitch, he sent Messi and Medel off. After several more minutes of remonstrating and protest, both men left the pitch.
Argentina had taken the field driven by a sense of injustice, wounded by refereeing decisions that did not go their way in Tuesday’s semifinal against Brazil. Chile, meanwhile, were fuelled by the bittersweet — but mainly bitter — sensation that an era was ending.
This was surely the last time that the greatest team in the country’s history, Copa champions in 2015 and ’16, would play together. They did not want to go out with a whimper but quickly found themselves two goals down, with Argentina’s sharp attack finding gaps in an ageing defence.
The ball might have been rolling when, after 12 minutes, Messi took a quick free kick to find a characteristically intelligent run by Sergio Aguero, who finished with aplomb. Ten minutes later, Giovani Lo Celso’s delightful, defence-splitting pass was collected by Pablo Dybala for Argentina’s second.
Messi set up Dybala for what probably should have been the third, but the Juventus striker volleyed just wide, and it looked like a rout might be in the offing. But this great Chilean generation had no intention of being humiliated as they left the scene and the game turned ugly, with flare-ups and fouls aplenty.
Out of his depth, Diaz de Vivar overreacted. Perhaps the old ploy of trying to establish control by sending off one player from each side was premeditated, or maybe he convinced himself that the next flashpoint would give him a chance to reach for the red and reestablish his authority.
But it was foolish. Medel, perhaps, was pushing his luck, but Messi had done nothing to merit his marching orders. Many of the Sao Paulo crowd had come to see the Argentine No. 10, and they made the referee well aware of their feelings.
After the game, Messi spoke out about the Medel incident and the fallout from the semifinal defeat.
“I feel lot of anger because I think I did not deserve that red card because I think we were playing a very good game,” he said. “We were ahead but, as I said recently, unfortunately there is a lot of corruption, the referees… We leave with the feeling that they did not allow us to be in the final, that we were ready for better. Brazil’s match and today’s match were our two best performances but then when you are sincere, you say things and these things happen.”
The knock-on effect for Argentina is that, if the red card stands, Messi will be suspended for the start of World Cup qualifying next year. Before then, though, there is some serious thinking to do for the country’s federation.
Caretaker coach Lionel Scaloni has been told that he will stay in charge until the end of the year. If he is not going to be retained long-term, then that seems bizarre. Friendlies in September, October and November are vital for whipping the team into shape, so it makes no sense to keep a temporary coach unless the top choice is not yet available.
There is much speculation that River Plate’s Marcelo Gallardo will be the new man, but he might not want to free himself from club duties while his side are still in contention for the Copa Libertadores title they won against Boca Juniors earlier this year.
Scaloni would appear to want to stay on and can use the argument that his side finished the Copa America much better than they started the competition, but the truth is that Argentina’s poor start was in large part down to the incoherence of the temporary coach.
He took over last August shouting loud about a new style based on winning the ball, transferring it quickly to the wingers and being in position to shoot within three or four seconds. The problem was that the idea did not work once Messi was available; Argentina could not possibly field him as well as two open wingers and a centre forward.
The past few weeks have seen Scaloni try to find a way out of the confusion that he created, and to his credit, by the end of the Copa, his team was more compact and had created a circuit of passing through the middle of the field that brought Messi into play strikers working heroically.
The opening half-hour against Chile featured Argentina’s best football of the tournament, and the opening goal — that quick free kick from Messi to Aguero — brought back memories of the Diego Maradona-inspired strike by Claudio Caniggia against Nigeria in the 1994 World Cup.
Argentina await their first senior title since the year before that goal, when they won the 1993 Copa America in Ecuador, but while it is striking that so many talented attackers have not subsequently been able to get their hands on silverware, the main problems are at the other end of the pitch.
The lack of defensive pace remains a thorn in the side. Scaloni has changed some of the names, but the way Paraguay scored in group-stage play, as well as the nature of Brazil’s second goal in the semifinal, highlights the need for a new generation of quicker, better defenders.
Chile, meanwhile, need a new generation of everything. They pushed themselves as hard as they could in this tournament, but there is only ever one winner in the long-term battle between athlete and time. It was fitting in a way that, when Alexis Sanchez limped off early in this game, he was replaced by Junior Fernandes, age 31.
Results will suffer, but a major rebuilding job is unavoidable, and it will begin in their next game: a September friendly in the U.S. against Argentina.
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